Over the years on The Sporkful, Dan has explored an idea that’s changed the way he understands food in the U.S.: You can track an immigrant group’s assimilation in America by looking at whether their food is perceived as American, or foreign. Why is pizza accepted as American, while wonton soup is considered foreign — even though Chinese immigrants came to America in large numbers before Italian immigrants? This week we continue to explore this question with Professor Krishnendu Ray, who first explained this concept on our show, as well as chef and recipe developer Yewande Komolafe, and cookbook authors Madhur Jaffrey and Priya Krishna.
- Krishnendu Ray’s book The Ethnic Restaurateur
- Yewande Komolafe’s “10 Essential Nigerian Recipes” (The New York Times)
- Sporkful episode “Why Hibachi Is Complicated” (Stitcher Premium)
- Sporkful episode “When Will Indian Food Be American?” (Stitcher Premium)
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Get In The Back" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- Intrepid Stratagem" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
- "Shake and Bake" by Hayley Briasco
- "Slightly Carbonated" by Erick Anderson
- "Can You Dig It" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
Photo courtesy of Dan Keck/Flickr.
CLIP (YEWANDE KOMOLAFE): I've had to work to not write recipes for the white audience because I think that food media is steeped in that. If I'm developing a recipe for Nigerian cuisine, I have to tell you where Lagos is on the map.
CLIP (KRISHNENDU RAY): Like when Salman Rushdie first started writing his novels and he had a lot of Hindi, especially Bollywood words in it, and people said "Well, that’s making it difficult for me to understand, especially in the western audience." He said, "Well, we figured out where daffodils are. We figured out what Nightingale is. We figured out the Grecian urn. So, you figure out what samosa is. Put some effort into it."
CLIP (YEWANDE KOMOLAFE): Yeah, I had to figure out what a hamburger was when I first moved here, you know? So, like I did the work.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Of all the things I’ve learned doing this show over the years, one that has most stuck with me is this: You can track an immigrant group’s assimilation in America by tracking the acceptance of their food into mainstream culture. In other words, the perception of a group’s food tends to line up with the perception of the people, for better or worse.
Dan Pashman: I first came to understand this through my conversations with Professor Krishnendu Ray, chair of the food studies department at NYU. This week I’m gonna share a new chapter in that ongoing conversation with Professor Ray, and we’ll be joined by chef and recipe developer Yewande Komolafe. You heard a bit of our chat at the top of the show. But before we get to that, I want to go back a bit. Nowadays, there are upscale Italian restaurants all over America, right? But as Professor Ray told me in 2016, that wasn’t always the case.
CLIP (KRISHNENDU RAY): Italian food in fact became prestigious only after Italian immigration effectively stopped, of poor people. OK?
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): And correct me if I’m wrong, but I mean, generations ago, Italian people were made fun of for smelling like garlic.
CLIP (KRISHNENDU RAY): Exactly.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): And their food was considered low class.
CLIP (KRISHNENDU RAY): Yeah, nutritionists and public health specialists were full of disdain for Italian food as not good for us because they were eating all this spicy food. In those days it was considered, especially garlic and the argument was that all this garlic led to craving for alcohol.
Dan Pashman: When Italian immigrants first started coming to the U.S. in large numbers in the late 18 and early 1900s, it was said that they were dirty and dangerous, like their food. And they were not considered white. Neither were Irish or Jewish immigrants, by the way. Professor Ray says that as Italians assimilated and moved up the socioeconomic ladder, they essentially became white and their food became middle class. As you get into the 40s and 50s, foods associated with Italian immigrants move into the mainstream. Chef Boyardee brings mass produced Italian food into homes across the country. And of course, there's the scene from Lady and the Tramp, when the two dogs are eating a romantic dinner of spaghetti and meatballs.
(Clip of Lady and Tramp plays)
Dan Pashman: That film came out in 1955. And once your food is in a Disney movie, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s gained wide acceptance. By the 1980s, Italian-Americans have moved further up the socioeconomic ladder, and their food becomes gourmet. Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali become household names, and a new wave of upscale Italian restaurants emerges. So how exactly did that happen?
Dan Pashman: Well part of it, Professor Ray says, is that as an immigrant group becomes more affluent, the perception of their culture is upgraded. He calls this the Hierarchy of Taste. Also, for a cuisine to assimilate, certain dishes tend to come to the fore, break through first. It’s no accident that the tomato sauce that caught on in America first was a simple, sweet marinara sauce, not a spicy arrabiata or tangy puttanesca. Professor Ray says cuisines tend to evolve as they assimilate. And that same adaptation has been happening in recent decades, with other immigrant cuisines.
CLIP (KRISHNENDU RAY): Let’s say Chicken Tikka Masala. It goes through a series of translations, where it becomes sweeter, it becomes redder, it becomes less spicy, because we have a natural proclivity to sweeter and fattier things. It's easier to eat them, drink them. That will allow the translation to happen, which is also a form of bastardization or hybridization. And then, maybe after a generation, you will have its redefinition.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Right. Then someone comes along and says "No no no, I’m gonna give you the authentic..."
CLIP (KRISHNENDU RAY): Exactly, now the new wave Indian restaurants are no longer calling the Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken Tikka Masala. They’re calling it butter chicken, like I used to eat, when I was in Delhi University in Delhi, in Hindu College. I used to eat Butter Chicken.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Thats what they called it?
CLIP (KRISHNENDU RAY): That’s the closest thing to Chicken Tikka Masala.
Dan Pashman: And really, one person’s translation may be another person’s bastardization.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): So, is this a problem?
CLIP (KRISHNENDU RAY): I think translation is a good and an interesting thing. I’m not opposed to it. But on the other side, you also lose some of the vernacular things that cannot be translated. All translations are also some kind of a loss.
Dan Pashman: When we talk about an immigrant group assimilating, it’s not just about them being here for a certain amount of time. It’s about getting to a point where they’re no longer seen as being on the outside looking in. Today, Italian Americans are seen as just as American as anyone else. And while I understand that spaghetti and pizza originated in Italy, I don’t think of those foods as foreign. But not all cuisines follow the same path to trajectory. Some seem to leapfrog others. Professor Robert Ku teaches Asian and Asian American studies at Binghamton University. In an episode we did last year about hibachi, he said something that really stuck with me.
CLIP (ROBERT KU): If you are of European ancestry, you can easily be considered an American without any kind of friction. But if you happen to be brown or yellow, then suddenly your first impulse is to say, "You must be an alien, you must be an immigrant." When that person could be 4th, 5th generation American. For instance, if you look at the food analogies, the hot dog, and the hamburger, and the pizza. All those foods originated in Europe. But very quickly, it gets incorporated into this diet of Americans and no one ever questions whether a hot dog is American. But in fact the Chinese food, the won-ton soup for instance, has been in America longer than the hot dog. And yet the won ton soup is seen as perpetually foreign, even though its been around for 150 years, even though Chinese have been in America since 150 years. So this struggle to be seen as America, as legitimately American, is a challenge that Asian Americans continually face.
Dan Pashman: This struggle plays out in the world of food in various ways, for Asian Americans and others. One example, a while back, I was shopping for mustard in the condiments section of the supermarket. Right next to the Heinz Ketchup, I find French dijon mustard, German mustard, Polish mustard. All European styles associated with white people. Then I look in the International aisle, a whole other section, and I find Chinese mustard. The only mustard in the store from people of color. That one’s classified as International and yet it’s made in New Jersey. As are many of the Jewish products I’ve seen in the International aisle. I even once saw a brand of canned sweet potatoes with a black woman on the label in the International section, right next to the Goya beans, by the way are also made in New Jersey.
Dan Pashman: You can find other subtle signals of who’s in and who’s on the outside in food writing and recipes. For example, which dishes and ingredients get explained, and which don’t? If I reference fettuccine, I don’t say, “It’s a long flat pasta.” I just assume that you know. But in doing that I’m making an assumption about who you are, about what’s mainstream.
Dan Pashman: In food media, dishes associated with brown people are presented with a different name. Haldi doodh took over Instagram a few years ago, but with a different name, the turmeric latte. That rebrand assumes the audience doesn’t know what Haldi doodh is, even though it’s a drink known to millions of Americans of Indian descent. We got a voicemail from a listener named Katerina Wang in Columbus, Ohio, who shared a frustration with how food media explains different dishes.
CLIP (KATHARINA WANG): Hello Sporkful team, I recently made dosas for the first time from scratch and was talking to my partner, who is Indian, about how ridiculous it is that dosas are often described as crepes but honestly they couldn’t be any more different. And it got me thinking about how ethnic food is so often described in western terms and who gets to make the decisions of what is foreign vs. what is comfortable and familiar in cuisine.
Dan Pashman: The concern Katarina is raising is that using European, or white foods, to define non-white foods puts white people at the center of the conversation and makes their foods the default. It caters to the white audience and it makes others out to be...well, other. Last year, we did a live show with cookbook author Priya Krishna. She talked about the choices food writers make about which words get italicized. We don’t typically italicize pierogi, or baguette, even though those words aren’t English. But they are from European languages. Foods from other parts of the world are more often italicized.
CLIP (PRIYA KRISHNA): I hate when people italicize dal or sabzi. I feel like people should know what a dal or a sabzi is, or at least be able to detect by context clues. Like dal, and then I say lentils. Sabzi, and then I talk about vegetables. The more we can normalize that language, the less that people will see it as "exotic" or an other.
Dan Pashman: At that show we were also joined by Madhur Jaffrey, who introduced many Americans to Indian cuisine with her 1973 book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking. She's gone on to write over 30 more cookbooks. And Priya, meanwhile, she had just released her first Indian cookbook, entitled, Indianish: Recipes and Antics From A Modern American Family. I asked her about that subtitle.
CLIP (PRIYA KRISHNA): I was thinking a lot about how in categories, like on Amazon, they separate books from American and International. And any book that, basically, isn't like roast chicken is put into the international category. But I was born in America. I was raised in America. My parents now have lived in America longer than they have lived in India. We are as American as the roast chicken people. So I just wanted to make it very clear, like this is an Indian cookbook but it’s also an American cookbook. We can be both. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Dan Pashman: At this point Madhur Jaffrey added…
CLIP (MADHUR JAFFREY): So in a way, we are still explaining ourselves and wooing people.
CLIP (PRYA KIRSHNA): Right.
CLIP (MADHUR JAFFREY): We are not there, yet.
Dan Pashman: I think now you have a sense of the conversation we’ve been having on this show over the last few years. In recent months, these questions have gotten more attention in the world of food media, as our industry undergoes its own reckoning on race. And a lot of the focus is on that word that Madhur used, explaining. What gets explained, and how? And what does that tell us about who’s in the target audience and who isn’t?
Dan Pashman: Coming up, we’ll have the next chapter in this ongoing conversation. Professor Krishnendu Ray returns, along with chef and recipe developer Yewande Komolafe. She’ll talk about waiting for the food world to make space for her, then deciding to make that space herself. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Remember the days when bad coffee at work was our biggest problem? Well, you can relive those days with last week’s episode, "The Great Office Coffee Election". We follow one woman’s quest to get better coffee in her office, which culminates with a companywide taste test.
CLIP (MYIESHA GORDON-BEALES): I really couldn't sleep last night. I was, you know, tossing and turning anticipating this day. I hope everything turns alright.
Dan Pashman: Plus, I talk with a caffeine researcher and a behavior economist to find out whether free office coffee makes us happier, or more productive employees. That one’s up now, check it out. OK, back to the show, and a quick note that there is one bit of profanity at the very end of this conversation.
Dan Pashman: We spent the first part of this episode tying together pieces of a conversation that, as I said, we’ve been having here for several years. Now, the conversation continues.
Dan Pashman: Yewande Komolafe is a food writer and recipe developer. Her recipes have appeared in The New York Times, in Bon Appetit and many others. Welcome back, Yewande.
Yewande Komolafe: Thank you, it's good to be here.
Dan Pashman: And Krishnendu Ray is the chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU. Welcome back, Krishnendu.
Krishnendu Ray: Hey, thank you for having me Dan.
Dan Pashman: And longtime listeners remember you, Yewande, from our episode, “Yewande Finds Her Superpower,” which told the story of you coming to the U.S. from Nigeria on a student visa. Long, long story short, a bureaucratic snafu with the university left you without immigration status. You stayed here undocumented for a number of years and are now an American citizen, we're happy to report.
Yewande Komolafe: Not an American citizen. I do have a green card.
Dan Pashman: Oh, sorry. Yes, thank you for the fact check.
Krishnendu Ray: You have two immigrants on your panel. Too much.
Yewande Komolafe: I know.
Dan Pashman: So, Yewande, one of the reasons why I really wanted to have you as part of this conversation is your perspective is an interesting one as far as a recipe developer, because you've been trained in European styles of cooking. You also grew up with Nigerian styles of cooking, and you’ve done a lot of work for major publications that are trying to reach a big, mass audience, including writing a feature for the New York Times on "10 Essential Nigerian Recipes". So when you are developing a recipe for a major publication, do you think differently about the way that you describe the ingredients, describe the foods when you're doing European cuisine versus Nigerian?
Yewande Komolafe: I do. And I've had to work to not write recipes for the white audience because I think that food media is steeped in that. If I'm developing a recipe for Nigerian cuisine, I have to tell you where Lagos is on the map. I have to explain that red palm oil is not going to kill orangutans. And so I'm going through this process now, as I'm writing my own cookbook right now, I'm going through this process of like, who am I writing for? Why do I have to explain every single ingredient in here? How much explanation is enough? Should I, you know, like... part of it also falls on the consumer to do their own research. Like, if you want to cook a recipe from Nigeria, like go do some work, go visit African markets. Go ask questions there, you know.
Krishnendu Ray: Like when Salman Rushdie first started writing his novels and he had a lot of Hindi, especially Bollywood words in it, and people said "Well, that’s making it difficult for me to understand’ especially in the western audience." He said, "Well, we figured out where daffodils are. We figured out what Nightingale is. We figured out the grecian urn. So, you figure out what samosa is. Put some effort into it."
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah, I had to figure out what a hamburger was when I did the work.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, exactly. I went back today, before we were getting ready to talk and look and reread the intro to your "10 Essential Nigerian Recipes" in the New York Times. And you have a note in there. You said you have to leave out a recipe for—I apologize—nkwobi. Is that the right pronunciation?
Yewande Komolafe: Yes, nkwobi.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Nkwobi. So, you have to leave out the recipe for nkwobi. You said, “As much as I’d like readers to spend a day off from work perfecting a long-simmer cow’s foot, I want these recipes to be practical.”
Yewande Komolafe: (laughs) Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So accessibility was something that was in your thought process.
Yewande Komolafe: Yes, and I think that for that piece, especially, I think that's where I started to break down who am I explaining to, who am I writing for because very often recipes are looked at as the—like if I write a recipe for jollof rice, it becomes "The" recipe for jollof rice. And it becomes, like, this is how all of Nigera makes jollof rice. And so I felt that like in the essay I had to put in there that, "You know what? It's a recipe for jollof rice, not the recipe for jollof rice." Very often I'm asked to develop recipes that quick and weeknight and weeknight friendly and easy, but that weeknight title is so constraining. Like, if—what's a weeknight Nigerian meal? If feels like I'm watering it down to make it more digestible for this audience.
Dan Pashman: You mentioned the word, "weeknight". The food writer Cathy Erway wrote a piece recently for Grub Street, that highlighted two recipe titles from Bon Appetit. One was, "Weeknight Pad Thai", one was, "Weeknight Mapo Tofu". And her point was like, those are both dishes that are supposed to be cooked very quickly, so they're kind of inherently weeknight dishes. Why do you need to say they're weeknight dishes? If you cook them slowly and took a long time to make them, you would actually be screwing them up. I certainly see the way that the addition of this word, "weeknight", in this context marks the recipes as being for people who don't typically cook these dishes, for a predominantly white audience. That being said, I have to say like, I googled "weeknight roast chicken", and there's a lot of recipes out there for weeknight roast chicken. I, 100 percent, understand all the concerns that you raise and see them all as totally valid concerns. I'm just saying, is it possible that in addition to all those things, there is also this other factor, which is separate from race, and which is just like people are busy and they have a bias towards quick and easy? And if an editor at a food media publication frames a recipe for any dish, whether it's roast chicken or Mapo tofu as quick and easy, people across races who are busy and pressed for time will gravitate to that recipe.
Krishnendu Ray: Yeah, I'm OK with that. In fact, that's totally fine. All of this is entering into conversation, simply because it has been such an uneven and unequal playing field. So these are ways to mark and say, "OK, let's have a conversation about weeknight cooking and what is included and what is excluded." Just what gets normalized, right?
Dan Pashman: Right.
Krishnendu Ray: That that's the thing.
Dan Pashman: The issue of normalization, I think, is so important because, you know, Yewande, you talked about kind of like, who is the recipe written for. And one of the things that a lot of the people who are doing these recipes and looking at these questions more closely right now, is "Which ingredients get explained?". I was reading a piece that was in Bon Appetit, from back in 2014, where a food editor there who was saying, "Oh, we used to explain what tahini is, but now more and more people know what it is. It's available more widely, so now we don't have to explain anymore what tahini is."
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah, I think, also, the question of who are we explaining to? Like, I've had to ask an editor that question before, "Can I call jollof rice, "tomato baked rice in red pepper sauce?". Actually, no. Just call it jollof rice because there's a whole continent of people who know exactly what I mean and so, "Who are we explaining to?", is a big question.
Dan Pashman: What you said to me in the past, Krisnendu, if I can try to sort of summarize it is when a newer cuisine comes to America with a newer group of people, in order for that cuisine to gain acceptance into the mainstream certain compromises are typically made, certain vernacular details are kind of...rough edges are sanded down. And as you said on our show before, there is a loss with that. Something is lost but something, but hopefully, is also gained.
Krishnendu Ray: Absolutely.
Dan Pashman: In an increased familiarity. And so the food and by extension the people we associated with it over time are not perceived as unfamiliar and foreign, but as familiar as American. I sense that especially among a younger generation of people of color in the world of food today, they don't feel they should have to compromise to gain that acceptance.
Yewande Komolafe: I agree. (laughs) I, absolutely, agree. Because I would argue that I want to be acknowledge just in the same way the white audience is acknowledged. Like, I want to be acknowledged. Immigrants are part of the American story and so, can I speak directly to my Nigerian audience without having to pause and explain? Can this audience over here, who is not familiar with the cuisine do the work and catch up with us, who own the cuisine or who are part of the cuisine? And so, I think that I am more and more I am here for a food world that acknowledges the people that exist already within that culture, rather than catering the white audience.
Krishnendu Ray: And I totally agree. I think this is partly generational and the younger audience in someways is much more assertive. And we need that for the...to kind of hasten the pace of change. The new social media allows newer voices to enter without having to compromise. Much stronger second generation immigrant or younger immigrant voices, who are much more impatient with real and symbolic inequality.
Dan Pashman: A couple years ago, I was talking with Krishnendu. I was researching a story that never aired, so I wasn’t recording. But I wanted to get his take on... well, spicy Doritos. Bear with me here, this’ll sound silly but the underlying point is serious. Spicy Doritos are now in supermarkets across the U.S. As we've said, we can track an immigrant group’s assimilation in America by tracking the acceptance of their food into mainstream culture. In the past decade, food in America has gotten a lot spicier to point that the flavors of black and brown immigrants have influenced a huge corporation like Frito-Lay, which is owned by Pepsi, to create a spicy version of one of the most widely consumed snack foods in the country. Now, I know this doesn’t mean that all our problems are magically solved or that white supremacy has ceased to exist. But my question to Krishnendu is this, does it mean that the assimilation has gotten far enough along that it’s irreversible? And he basically said, if we can make it through the next few years, through Trump, then yes. I reminded him of that conversation, and asked him for his take now.
Krishnendu Ray: I think I'll go back with even more caution. And here's my fear, is if a large enough group of ethnic white Americans see much of American culture, urban culture especially, as a threat, they will fight like hell to stop it. And that's what this regime is doing exactly. And so it gives me...it makes me fearful because these folks have money and power. And they can do a lot of damage even when they are eventually, culturally have to concede the ground to basically post 1965 American demographic change, which is largely sub-Saharan African, LatinX, Asian. OK? So the question is this for me, can most white Americans live in a culture of plurality that all of us have lived? The rest of us have always lived in a culture of plurality and not be so anxious of not being a super majority? If there are enough white folks who are secure about themselves, about their culture and their politics is inclusive, I'm hopeful that part of me and I have enough—let me put it...let me reverse it. I have enough white friends to say I'm hopeful about it.
Dan Pashman: Yewande? You were already thinking about some of these issues a couple years ago when we did our show together. I recall you talking about kind of going through the period when you really weren't cooking much Nigerian food, when you were almost kind of hiding that part of your identity and focusing on European cooking in your own sort of awakening. But I'm curious if your thoughts on these issues have changed anymore in the past year or so, with everything that's going on.
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah, I think I've been going through the process of just being comfortable with my own voice, being comfortable with my own self. I lived this story that where part of my life living undocumented, what had to be hidden. And I think that that caused me to hide a lot of other aspects of my life. I've also just never comfortably fit in boxes. And so I was born in Berlin and we moved back to Nigeria. And then I left Nigeria when I was 16. And I've grown up here and so am I Nigerian enough? I don't know. Am I American? I never call myself American. Am I German because German was my first language, actually no. You know, so it's just me. It's been a process of me shifting and shaping and just being comfortable with that discomfort.
Krishnendu Ray: Is it broadly...if I may ask. Yewande, are you more optimistic or less optimistic say from a couple of years ago?
Yewande Komolafe: Uh. Hmm. I think I'm more optimistic because for a long time I was waiting for for this industry to create a space for me. And now I'm more of the opinion that, like, you know what? Fuck it. If you can't make space for me, I will make my own table.
Dan Pashman: That’s chef and recipe developer Yewande Komolafe, she’s currently working on her first cookbook, which comes out next year. We’ll link to her "10 Essential Nigerian Recipes" at Sporkful.com. We also heard from Krishnendu Ray, he’s Chair of the Food Studies Department at NYU, and a member of the editorial collective of the food studies journal Gastronomica.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, something completely different. We’re going full escapism, with Samin Nosrat of Salt Fat Acid Heat fame, and Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway, who’s Samin’s co host for the podcast Home Cooking. The three of us are gonna see how much time we can spend nerding out on cookies. That’s next week. While you wait for that one, check out last's week show, "The Great Office Coffee Election". Please remember to follow me on Instagram, @TheSporkful. I post fun stuff there, you should do it.